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Is Seeking Power in Your Relationship Good or Bad?

What kind of power helps or hurts a relationship?

Key points

  • Researchers found that happy relationships were those in which both partners felt they could decide on important issues
  • Shared power in daily decisions or conflicts enables a couple to figure out what best serves the relationship itself.
  • Collaboration and transparency are essential to partners who want to share power and control when making decisions.

New research from two German universities about how power affects couples’ relationships underscores what can help–or seriously hurt–couples’ lives. The study links with what we see clinically with couples on the verge of ending their relationship, damaged by their never-ending power struggles.

The upshot of the research is that happy relationships were those in which both partners felt they could decide on important issues. Neither had controlling power over the other. That finding is congruent with other empirical research and clinical studies that point to a shift from "power over " to "power with" among couples who create long-term, sustaining relationships.

In fact, noting that shift led to the new study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The researcher noted the shift away from “traditional power,” based on higher income and education, and usually the domain of the male partner. They looked at how that general shift of gender roles played out in couples’ relationships around power in their daily lives.

The study was conducted with 181 heterosexual couples between 18 and 71 years old and described here. In essence, it found that traditional power did not play a significant role in the happiest couples. Rather, power in decision-making was shared. The happy couples felt they could decide on issues that they held importantly.

Creating Shared Power And Its Benefits

As lead researcher Robert Korner pointed out, the happiest couples were those in which both partners reported a high sense of personal power: "It appears that the subjective feeling of power and the feeling of being able to act freely significantly impact the quality of the relationship."

So true. In previous articles, I’ve cited other research and clinical evidence that partners who jockey around for control and “winning” disputes are a direct path to fading intimacy and perhaps to the end of the relationship.

In contrast, research from the University of Minnesota cited in a previous article found that if you have an argument with your partner, and either one of you disengages from the emotional impact of the dispute, (that is, you don't let it overflow onto the relationship in other areas) then both partners feel more positively towards each other, afterward.

This is consistent with other empirical and clinical studies showing that shared power in daily decisions or conflicts enables a couple to figure out what best serves the relationship itself, between the two of you, like a third entity, rather than either one of you. Shared power builds greater consideration, respect, and empathy for each other. Research also shows that shared decision-making between equal partners leads to better decisions. An additional benefit, when housework is shared, there’s evidence that such couples have better sex.

Collaboration And Transparency Are Linked

A study from Baylor University found that partners want to share power and control when making decisions in their relationship and seek greater intimacy. But they may not see the connection between collaboration and transparency. Collaboration is built through becoming more transparent; by sharing intimate thoughts and feelings and listening to each other.

That’s similar to what I’ve described as “radical transparency.” Radical transparency is being open and revealing your intimate self to your partner. For example, letting go of inhibitions or defensive feelings you harbor about what you've kept hidden, including acknowledging a reluctance to reveal those secrets.

And, on the reverse side, radical transparency is being open and receptive to your partner's reality. That includes encouraging your partner to express his or her feelings, wishes, desires, fears, and differences from yourself.